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Jordan Reid

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SAG needs to protect its behind-the-scenes actors

Jul 20, 2023

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The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is now striking alongside the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which started its strike back in May. The two guilds are advocating for better pay, increased royalties, better pension and health plans and guardrails on the use of AI in the industry.

Straight Arrow News contributor Jordan Reid says these strikes are important and that the people in the guilds working behind the scenes need more safeguards to support their livelihoods.

The background actors, the day players, the ones who populate your favorite movies and TV shows but never get recognized on the street — those are the people we are fighting for. So, let’s break down what the strike is about. There are five issues at play here. Residuals, streaming platforms, inflation, artificial intelligence and self-tape auditions. 

That last one: self-tape auditions. Imagine you’re an actor. You get offered an opportunity to be considered for a role. You spend several hours memorizing your lines. You do your own hair, makeup and wardrobe, because you don’t want to lose out on the part because your competition did those things better. 

Maybe you pay someone to read opposite you. That’s a thing now. You shoot yourself using equipment you had to pay for to be competitive and you send your work off to a casting director. And then you don’t get the part. That is labor for which you will never be compensated. 

Last week SAG-AFTRA went on strike for the first time in 43 years, joining the Writers Guild of America strike that began in May. Now, I have been a member of the Screen Actors Guild for most of my adult life, and I can attest to the fact that the union provides much needed support in an industry that can otherwise feel extremely precarious from worker’s perspective. 

 

It has been remarkable and emotional to see the strength that the union is showing in the face of a very real crisis for its members. Just listen to SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, whose speech last week brought me to tears. 

 

“We are labor and we stand tall! And we demand respect! And to be honored for our contribution — you share the wealth because you cannot exist without us!”

 

Yes, yes, yes, yes. Here’s the thing. When we think about actors, we think of the mega stars, but the bulk of SAG’s membership is made up of people like me, you, normal people who are just trying to secure enough work to pay the rent. Who really do need union subsidized health insurance to care for themselves and their families. The public facing image of the union is glamorous for sure, but the reality for most of its members is far less so.

 

The background actors, the day players, the ones who populate your favorite movies and TV shows but never get recognized on the street — those are the people we are fighting for. So, let’s break down what the strike is about. There are five issues at play here. Residuals, streaming platforms, inflation, artificial intelligence and self-tape auditions. 

 

That last one, self-tape auditions. Imagine you’re an actor, you get offered an opportunity to be considered for our role. You spend several hours memorizing your lines, you do your own hair, makeup, and wardrobe, because you don’t want to lose out on the part because your competition did those things better. 

 

Maybe you pay someone to read the lines opposite you, that is a thing now. You shoot yourself using equipment you had to pay for it to be competitive. You send your work off to a casting director. You don’t get the part. That is labor for which you will never be compensated. 

 

Now say you’re a background actor. I’ve done this work myself, and it is surprisingly hard. Long hours walking back and forth, being given little to no acknowledgement that you’re even there on set. With the rise of AI, studios will be able to hire a background actor for a day and then scan their likeness and use it in perpetuity. The people who make a living this way will no longer be able to do so if safeguards aren’t put into place.

 

Now take the issue of streaming platforms. The actors on the hugely popular show “Orange is the New Black” spoke to the New Yorker about the shocking disparity between how production companies profit versus the actors. Actor Beth Dover — who, full disclosure, she’s a friend of mine — said in this article it actually costs me money to be in seasons three and four since “I was cast local hire and had to fly myself out. But I was so excited for the opportunity to be on a show I loved, so I took the hit.” It’s maddening. 

 

It is hard to get an acting job. Forget about a starring role in a movie, just to get a spot in a commercial or a small role on a TV show. It is hard. You put in months of work just hoping for that one paying job. Back in the day when I was in my early 20s, a single commercial or guest appearance on a television show could financially sustain me for months, even a year. And that is just not the case anymore. 

 

Actors are being forced to operate under contracts that in no way represent the reality of today’s entertainment industry. Streaming platforms are huge money makers for the companies that produce them. And the actual real life human beings who make those profits possible deserve commensurate compensation. Period.

 

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